Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Salem Brownstone by John Hattis Dunning and Nikhil Singh

Salem Brownstone is a young man who works as a manager at a Laundromat, and is content with his lot, but when he receives notice that his father has died and left him a house and grounds, he's intrigued enough to take a taxi there. But by the time he gets to the house, night has fallen. He discovers a cloak on his father's coat rack and decides to wear it, seeing it has considerably more style and panache than a regular coat.

But he hears a noise upstairs and discovers a woman contorted into a very strange position in the middle of a pentagram on the floor. She's very much alive and in her hands she holds a small crystal ball. She claims his father borrowed it from her and she is merely retrieving it. She introduces herself as "Cassandra Contortionist". Just as Salem tells her to put the globe down, the lights go out, and he hears a gleefully evil snicker from the floor below.

He asks what the Hell that was, and Cassandra tells him that the word "Hell" is delightfully appropriate. Something called the Shadow Boys is in the house and after them. She and Salem throw themselves through the window and into the garden outside, where they land among thorn vines that break their fall. The Shadow Boys, whatever they are, want the scrying crystal, and are willing to kill both of them to get it. There is shelter, across the road in the circus that Cassandra works for- they just have to get there. But the Shadow Boys are fast, and finally, Cassandra passes him the crystal ball that suddenly flares into an intensely bright light when he holds it. Salem passes out and into another space, where he encounters a strange creature that comforts him with his presence.

After seeing brief periods of consciousness, he wakes up in Cassandra's bed, where he meets the other performers of the circus, Roscoe Dillinger- the Tiger Tamer, Jinx Monkeygirl, Cookie Herero, and the master of the Circus, Dr. Kinoshita. The Circus performers seem happy to see him, but Roscoe is certain that his presence will bring harm to the circus. Dr. Kinoshita says that his presence there is an honor, and that having Salem there is necessary.

Salem discovers that his father was a magician, and not the fake, sideshow magic kind, either. He started out trying to protect this world from evil, but it put his wife and son at risk, so he sent Salem and his mother away from him so that the evils he fought could not find or touch them. But he still kept track of his son's every triumph, and felt pride in him. His father, however, had become one of the guardians of the world, and every so often, he had to visit a tower in the otherworld to recharge part of himself that guarded the world. But now that he is dead, Salem must, as his heir, take his place- and his performance with the scrying ball is only one proof of that.

Salem, who had long thought his father abandoned him, is stunned and yet heartened by this evidence of his father's acknowledgement and approval of him and his choices. He resolves to continue on his father's work, and aided by Cassandra and the other circus performers, he must find out how and where to find the Tower his father constructed in the Overworld, and find out how to get there and re-power it, with the help of his familiar, Oosik.

But Salem isn't going to find that easy- the forces of Hell have a vested interest in stopping him and making him fail, and the Shadow Boys aren't the only weapon at their disposal. But when they turn one of the circus employees into their hidden weapon against Salem, can he survive and fight free to win the day?

I picked this up because it looked interesting- from the cloth cover in dark purple to the black figures and black tree limbs intertwining across it. The art inside is definitely strange looking, with very few straight lines or normal-looking people. In one way, it underscores the strangeness of the story, and the occult nature of the storyline. Also, it does really well for expressing the strangeness of the creatures from Hell, the Shadow boys included.

I found the art an intriguing change from the usual run of comic art I see in the graphic novels that I read, but others might find it off-putting or "Freaky". It is, perhaps, but that isn't a bad thing- it's different, and change and difference can be good. My only complaint is that the story is relatively short- I'd really like to read more, but considering that this book took them seven years to produce, I'm not holding out much hope for that.

I liked the ideas of the book, and I liked the art, but I realize that this may not be to everyone's taste. This book reminded me a lot of some of the things that Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman have done, and that's not a bad thing. For something different, with a Art Deco twist, you can't go far wrong with this graphic novel. Highly recommended and intriguing.

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